Post-truth news is not new

In all the post-Trump analysis the most consistent feature has been the emphasis on the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon and the decline of the traditional media’s role.

Some interpretations have dated the post truth era from Karl Rove’s comments about how the Bush administration created its own reality and that while the traditional media was interpreting a new version the administration had moved on. Successive Republican apologists and apparatchiks continued to employ the tactic through the Iraqi disaster (it wold have all been okay if Obama hadn’t withdrawn troops) and the GFC (all caused by forcing otherwise responsible banks to lend to poor people for homes). Needless to say these ‘realities’ were echoed by the Republicans’ Australian epigones such as Alexander Downer and others.

Other explanations have focussed on the spread of social media and the alt/right and the economic factors impacting on the traditional print media – although Trump seems to have been good for the New York Times which has added about 200,000 online subscribers since the election.

The blog would suggest that this entire perspective is erroneous. First, because post truth type media have been around for a long time. Second, because the myth of the independent Fourth Estate fearlessly reporting the truth was exactly that – a myth. Just a brief remembrance of proprietors such as Beaverbrook, Northcliffe, Hearst and others make that clear without taking into account the Murdoch publications here and in the UK. There is a telling vignette in Thornton McCamish’s book (Our Man Elsewhere) about the Australian war correspondent and author, Alan Moorehead, and his falling out with Beaverbrook who, after Moorehead declined the offer of further employment, ensured all Moorehead’s books were either panned or ignored in the Daily Express and Moorehead became a non-person. Stalinist Russia could have learnt from Beaverbrook’s capacity with the air brush.

Third, because much traditional media has self-destructed in the face of economic problems by: trying to out tabloid the tabloids; beating up stories with hyperbolic verbs about hitting, smashing and so on; and retrenching the journalists who had the best track record in reporting on and explaining the world. Just think for a moment of what a great publication could be created just by employing former Fairfax journalists who have been shown the door in recent years.

Fourth, because even the allegedly ‘left-wing’ media (eg The Age and the ABC) are only radical and leftist in the eyes of those put upon angry white males and females who rail about the elites from their downtrodden positons as Cabinet Ministers, columnists in Murdoch publications and various think tanks. Of course, given that they get paid for these beleaguered efforts you would think they could display more originality and not spend so much time recycling the views of US conservatives. Indeed, you can almost predict what they will say next simply by following Republican pre-occupations.

The reality is, as the blog has observed before, ‘fake news’ phenomena have been far more prevalent in the history of media and communications than has independent media. Anyone reading a typical Martin Luther pamphlet (or indeed much else written and published during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation) would consider the modern alt/right moderate in the extreme. The British Civil War was as much a pamphlet war as a military one and the pamphleteers were hardly polite or punctilious about facts. The material about the alleged murder of James I by Buckingham is a prime example.

By the 18th century in Britain the media was full of what we would call ‘bought media’ and political in context. If you paid you got positive news and if you didn’t, or your opponent did, you got the resulting fake/negative publicity. The authors of this material were not some pimply kids in a room somewhere, or some Russian hackers, but authors as distinguished as Swift. But, you might say, this was not as potent as modern social media. However, given the technology available, the speed and breadth of distribution was surprising as the literate read sheets to the unlettered.

One of the best historians of Reformation publications, developments in persuasion and the development of news media is Andrew Pettegree, Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews. In his book, The Invention of News, he says: “Even as news became more plentiful in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the problem of establishing the veracity of news reports became acute. The news market – and by the 16th century it was a real market – was humming with conflicting reports, some incredible, some all too plausible: lives, fortunes even the fate of kingdoms could depend on information.” And, as Pettegree points out, there was much misreporting. For instance, in 1588 much of continental Europe received news that the Spanish Armada had inflicted a crushing defeat on the English fleet. 460 years later US media fell into the same trap with the Dewey Wins headline.